Thursday, July 16, 2009

What about me?

As someone who stepped off the full-time career track recently, I'm naturally drawn to articles about women who choose to stay home or who want part-time options or who are struggling to manage a full-time career. Via a comment to this Motherlode post about a women who recently quit her job (after attempting to create a part-time one) to raise her daughter, I found this post about Jack Welch's recent speech where he suggests that women can't have a family and an upper level management position. Maybe they can't, but it has nothing to do with women and everything to do with societal and workplace norms.

Anyway, what has struck me about the rhetoric of many women who choose to leave is that they often say they don't want to miss out on the milestones of their children's lives. It's not really about the kids, per se, but about the mothers' experience of the kids. Occasionally, usually in situations where the kids do need extra attention for health or other reasons, the mothers will mention how their kids need them. The other rhetoric surrounding these decisions is that the mothers feel their families are suffering, as the latter post quotes from Womenomics "the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great."

I'm going to ignore for now that one rarely sees the conversation about men revolve around these issues. Even if fathers do want to witness their childrens' milestones or feel their families are suffering because of their long work hours, there isn't a lot of ink, digital or otherwise, spilled over it.

What intrigues me is the sliding that occurs between the mothers' personal desires to be present and the families' needs for said presence. It seems that when weighing whether to work or stay at home, the personal (and potentially selfish, but not in a negative sense) desire to be with one's child must be refigured as the family's (not the mother's) need for a maternal presence. Even the original post by the mother referenced in the Motherlode post makes this slide. On returning to work, Anna feels like she's missing out--a personal desire. Then, she says she wants to do what's right for her daughter.

I find this interesting not because I think mothers are bad for wanting to spend time with their children, but that after an initial expression of this desire, they feel the need to frame their argument as something that's better for their children or for their family as a whole. They seem to find it difficult to say, I want this for myself. I can see why they would have trouble saying this. It reframes the whole working vs. sahm debate very differently and plays into all the worst stereotypes of sahms. I don't really quite consider myself a full-blown sahm. I'd say I'm working very part-time at the moment, but I can say that I made this move mostly for me and secondarily for my kids. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I can definitely say that I experienced a lot of personal stress and unpleasantness as a result of trying to juggle a career (not just a job) and a family. I had very little support from either the workplace or the home front. I was also watching my son suffer in school. Whether I played a role in that or not, I knew or felt that if I could be more present, I might alleviate that suffering. I might have suffered through the personal stress to get to my career goals if my family was cruising along fine (as it did for years), but because things seemed to be falling apart (and I was suffering as a result of this as well), I needed to change something. It was a complicated decision to make and I think reducing it to my own desire to be with my kids or my kids/family's need for me is too easy.

When people love what they do and/or can achieve a good balance between their work life and their family life, they tend to continue to work. I found that I'd quite loving my particular position, though I loved the field in general and I found I'd lost any sense of balance. When I think about my previous work life, I see many signs that I was personally suffering. My mental and physical health declined. I felt pretty despondent about going to work. It's pretty clear I needed to take a break for myself. As parents go through the process of raising kids, of dealing with their particular kids and their particular employment circumstances, they make different decisions at different points. Our careers peaked at about the same time, leaving us both with little time to focus on family issues. Ideally, we each could have picked up the slack for the other, but it didn't work that way. I often advise new mothers, especially, that parenting actually gets more challenging as the kids get older, and to consider cutting back at that point rather than when the kids are infants and toddlers. But some people have challenging infants and toddlers. They get sick or they have special needs of some kind or they just take more energy.

I guess this is a long and rambly way of saying, sometimes it is about you and your ability to manage, physically and mentally, the challenges that life throws at you. And I think we, as a society, need to quit judging each other for decisions we might make as a result. It would be even better if we could go to employers and say, "you know what, here's what's going on in my personal/family life and I need you to accommodate me in this way" and know that we won't get fired. I have that now, as my own employer, and any future employer is going to have a hard time competing with the flexibility I provide myself.